Tapping at tradition: India’s women tabla players

Malini Nair | Updated on September 27, 2019 Published on September 27, 2019

Drumroll: Musician Aban Mistry also wrote one of the most definitive books on the tabla and its many schools

Women tabla players in India are still waiting for the limelight. Even if solo performances are picking up, the role of the accompanist mostly belongs to men

A whole lot of predictable jokes and innuendos that rhyme abla (weak woman) with the tabla had hit Aban Mistry when she started giving solo public performances in the late 1950s.

Stepping into a world that women had stayed away from could not have been easy, not even for someone with Mistry’s indomitable spirit. “She was an elegant, well-dressed woman and she had spoken about being treated as novelty on stage, not a musician, in her early days. People would often come to just gape,” says Chirag Solanki, a research scholar at MS University, Baroda, who is documenting Mistry’s life for his doctorate. But she not only survived the condescension and hostility, she also went on to make her mark in the field, authoring one of the most definitive publications on the tabla and its many schools, Tablaaur Pakhawaj ke Gharaney evum Paramparayen (1984). With her guru Keki Jijina, Mistry also co-founded Swar Sadhna Samiti, a foundation to promote Indian classical music among the youth. Mistry's talent was further nurtured by Amir Hussain Khan, the tabla wizard of Farrukhabad gharana.

Mistry, whose mastery over the instrument was said to be absolute and flawless, passed away in October 2012, but made it possible for other women to explore the field. Even today there are only a few women tabla players — Anuradha Pal, Rimpa Siva, Mukta Raste and Savani Talwalkar are among the handful.

Tabla artiste Rimpa Siva


The details of Mistry’s life story collected by Solanki and his guide and guru Gaurang Bhavsar include her photos of the carvings in the 2nd BCE Bhaja caves near Lonavala that depict a woman playing a pair of drums. The gender divides in music, according to Mistry, were a recent construct.

So, why is the tabla considered a male domain? As with the other women who have featured in the series, percussion was seen as a male speciality. The muscle work involved and the stamina it needs is supposed to be beyond a woman.

Artiste Anuradha Pal   -  S SUBRAMANIUM


In a poignant piece for Dawn on her struggle to learn the tabla, Pakistani author Uzma Aslam Khan recalls asking a tabla pandit from Benares why so few women were playing the instrument. Women can’t handle 14 hours of practice, he shot back at her; they can’t bloody their fingers. Then came the final putdown: “...They can’t play professionally. I have two women students. They are good. But they will never be professionals.”

As Khan argues, citing Virginia Woolf, the playing field for women percussionists is simply not level enough. “The indifference of the world which... men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her [Shakespeare’s sister’s] case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, ‘Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me.’ The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?’”

Leading tabla player and a scholar of Indian music history Aneesh Pradhan says there were women in the field in earlier decades as well, but they weren’t professionals in the modern sense of the word. “But this could be because of a variety of reasons. For one, they may not have pursued it professionally, or they may not have been competent performers, or they may not have been good accompanists (necessary for a tabla player of some standing), or they didn’t receive the recognition,” he says.

Pradhan points to the fascinating story of Moti Bibi, the wife of late 18th-century legend Ustad Haji Ali Vilayat Khan, who founded the famed Farrukhabad gharana of tabla music. The daughter of Ustad Bakshu Khan of the Lucknow gharana, Moti Bibi is believed to have been a good tabla player herself. She is also said to have carried with her a dowry of 500 gats (beat patterns) .

“Hajisaheb’s disciple Imam Baksh learnt a lot from her, and, in a gesture of acknowledgement, he received a bangle from her instead of the ganda (a thread signifying the guru-shishya bond). Imam Baksh is therefore called Chudiya/Chudiwale/Chudiawale Imam Baksh. Now, if she could teach Imam Baksh tabla compositions, I wouldn’t be surprised if she could also play tabla at some level,” says Pradhan.

It is likely that women played the tabla for folk ensembles or the zenana, he says and, as evidence, points to their portrayal of playing the dholak in miniatures. Even today there are women tabla players on the margins who haven’t got the recognition they deserve.

“Mukta Raste has provided tabla accompaniment and there may be a few others too. They may not have received national recognition, but I am sure there are several examples in small towns,” he says.

Bareilly-based Shobha Kodesia (65), who arrived on the professional circles as a tabla player in the mid-’70s, recalls her first audition at All India Radio in Lucknow. Her name was listed as Shri Shobha Ram, likely by a staffer who automatically connected the tabla to a man. “People who didn’t actually see me playing at the studio thought I was a man. ‘How can a girl play such a vazandaar (muscular) tabla?’ That was the one question I remember everyone asking when they realised that I was a woman. Then when they saw that I was a puny young girl, they were even more surprised,” recalls the Uttar Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee for 2014.

While the solo field has opened up considerably for women — Pal, Siva, Talwalkar usually take centre-stage as single players or part of all-women percussion ensembles — they are still less visible as accompanists. Given their skills you wouldn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to figure that the gender lines that define the field of percussion music have been broken but not entirely erased.

(This is the concluding piece of Being Instrumental)


Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi; Email:

Published on September 27, 2019
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